Baltimore Symphony Orchestra makes itself at home at Carnegie festival

Steve J. Sherman - The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Time for Three performs at Carnegie Hall's Spring for Music festival.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has played Carnegie Hall five times in the past six years — the fifth time Monday night, when it opened the third annual Spring for Music festival. And the orchestra seemed to have made itself right at home — but that was just Spring for Music’s schtick.

This festival celebrates American orchestras and creative programming at low ticket prices, and it tried to build up a sports-stadium-like-fan-club ambience by having members of the hometown crowd wave banners at the appropriate moment (Baltimore’s color is purple). Gov. Martin O’Malley also offered observations from the stage about how much the orchestra does for its community and the importance of arts education. Since O’Malley has actually performed with the BSO, along with the Celtic rock band O’Malley’s March, which he founded in 1988, he has plenty of authority to say anything about music that he wants.

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Priming the audience to whoop and holler is not a terrible idea, and the program offered at least one clear occasion for such a response: Jennifer Higdon’s “4-3.” This concerto for the classical-bluegrass trio Time for Three was, if not the best piece on the program, certainly the one that most played to the crowd. Time for Three formed when its members were students at Curtis, the elite music school: These are, in short, top-drawer classical musicians who happen to branch out into another idiom. There’s something slightly tongue in cheek about having a leading classical composer (Higdon teaches at Curtis) write a concerto for three Curtis students who happen to have a crossover band — it’s as if all the vernacular elements were in air quotes.

The result goes down easy: Higdon takes the energy that’s characteristic of all her music and tries it out with different accents, folksier twists and plenty of fiddling for the equally energetic young players. (Nicolas Kendall, one of the violinists, can barely stand still even when he isn’t playing.) And the trio, having re-donned the classical mantle, at least in part, for the duration of the concerto, threw it off again in their encore, their signature arrangement of “Orange Blossom Special” (opening with a riff on Vivaldi). Cue purple banners and whoops.

A counterweight to this was John Adams’s “Shaker Loops,” another, gentler face of Americana. This early piece is a reminder of Adams’s minimalist phase, although its gradual, kaleidoscopic transformations are never less than evocative, clear and quietly insistent. The Americana here is less about existing music and more about evocations of a sense or mood: harmonics in the strings, for instance, creaking like the squeaky hinge of a gate.

In the second half of the evening, the program left America but stayed in the general territory of “less known” — at least in that Prokofiev’s Fourth Symphony is not played as often as his Fifth. There are actually two Fourth symphonies: One, which is the true Fourth, was written in 1929 and based on music from the composer’s ballet “The Prodigal Son.” The other is based on the first but was so extensively reworked, revised and expanded almost 20 years later that the composer gave it its own opus number. It was this longer, arguably richer version that Marin Alsop, music director for the BSO, and her orchestra offered.

The piece is long, warm and arguably overworked; its slight self-consciousness, and slight lack of immediacy in some sections, may have been more Prokofiev’s doing than Alsop’s. Certainly the orchestra acquitted itself beautifully, with noble trumpets and warm strings to match the caliber of the crack percussion that bounced off Time for Three in the Higdon piece. Spring for Music’s encouragement of offbeat programming seems to prompt each orchestra to show its personality: This balance of American and Russian did encapsulate something about Baltimore under Alsop. So, perhaps, did the purple banners.

Spring for Music

continues at Carnegie Hall through Saturday, when the National Symphony Orchestra will conclude the festival. All tickets are $25.

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